Deconstructing the unwritten myth of a Javanese president – There is an unwritten convention in both Malaysia and Indonesia on who should be the country’s top leader.

 In Malaysia, the Prime Minister must be a Malay from the ruling Umno party. This is based on an understanding between political elites from the various races prior to independence in 1957, even though the Federal Constitution does not specify any particular race for the top job.

Similarly, in Indonesia, the president has always been a Javanese, with the exception of the third — B.J. Habibie, a Bugis from South Sulawesi, who became head of state when Suharto stepped down in 1998. Indonesia’s Constitution only stipulates the requirements that the candidate be locally-born, does not hold dual citizenship and be physically fit.

While the convention is widely accepted and not challenged in Malaysia so far, it has come under close scrutiny in Indonesia in recent weeks as the country gears up for the presidential election in two years’ time.

Three non-Javanese politicians are expected to join the fray; Aburizal Bakrie (son of a trader from Lampung) of Golkar, Hatta Radjasa (from South Sumatra) of the National Mandate Party and Surya Paloh (from Aceh) of the National Democrat Party will challenge the crop of Javanese candidates expected to run for the top job in 2014.

All three are seasoned politicians with a wealth of experience, political influence and huge war chests. Their supporters have been vocal in the current discourse on the presidency and are critical of the convention that only a Javanese can be president. They therefore want to end the practice which they claim goes against democratic norms.

Other critics also find it jarring that the myth persists today even after Indonesia has achieved much progress in its drive towards democratization.

“We should start educating our voters that they should look for qualities such as being a visionary and having the capacity to lead the country instead of his physical trait (as a Javanese),” said senior researcher Sukardi Rinakit of the Jakarta-based think-tank Soegeng Soerjadi Syndicate.

The myth of a Javanese president is ingrained in the political culture of Indonesia. Its origin can be traced to the country’s history during the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit that included present-day Indonesia and several territories in the region from the 13th to the 16th centuries. This period marked the superiority of the Javanease who dominated the multi-ethnic archipelago.

The tradition could have been perpetuated over the years by the perception that only a Javanese could play leadership roles. Indonesia’s political history is replete with examples of Javanese figures being either leaders or being the dominant group in religious, nationalist and communist movements.

In contemporary Indonesia, the myth is also deeply rooted in the country’s social demography. The Javanese are still the dominant race and more than 60 percent of voters are found on the main island of Java.

But some Indonesia watchers have noticed a change in the attitudes of voters in recent years — so much so that the days of the myth may be numbered.

This has been borne out by recent studies on voters’ attitudes conducted by private Indonesian think-tanks.

First, a national survey in October by the Jakarta-based Developing Countries Studies Centre Indonesia found that only 19.4 percent of respondents believed the nation’s president should be of Javanese descent. The majority, 73.3 percent, believed hereditary origins were not very important.

The center’s executive director Zaenal Budiyono said: “This survey indicates … a fundamental shift in voter attitudes. Most likely this shift began in 1999 as a result of political modernization, but it accelerated in 2004.”

Writing in the Jakarta Globe last week, he said the victory of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the 2004 presidential election was largely determined not by his Javanese roots, but by his charisma and effective communication style, which the public saw as a departure from most politicians at the time.

“Yudhoyono’s country-wide popularity was evident in the fact that he received a relatively even distribution of votes from around the country, indicating that he was not seen as just representing Java.”

Second, efforts at invoking primordial loyalty as an electoral strategy have proven to be a failure.

In the 2009 presidential election. former Vice President Jusuf Kalla and his Javanese running mate Wiranto used a catchy slogan pasangan nusantara to refer to their team representing Java and the Outer Islands. But the strategy was a disaster, with the team coming in last. The election results showed that the electorate did not find the Bugis-Javanese pair appealing. Voters did not vote along primordial lines.

Increasingly, Indonesian voters are more discerning and look for leadership qualities and the candidates’ track records rather than their ethnic backgrounds.

If this trend continues, it would not be far fetched to see a non-Javanese occupying the highest office in the land one day. If that happens, the Indonesian experience may inspire groups in Malaysia to challenge the convention that only a Malay can be Prime Minister.

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